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Confirming Trump's Secretary of Education will be more about money than policy

by Noah Kulwin
Jan 16 2017, 10:54am

A longtime donor to right-wing and Christian causes, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, faces her confirmation at the hands of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Labor, and Pensions Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. E.T. The hearing. however, will likely be less of an interrogation on education policy and more about her personal and political history.

While DeVos’ support for radical education reform, in particular a Republican-friendly orientation of the “school choice movement,” is well-trod ground, her background has allowed her to donate millions to the cause — and could raise some conflicts of interest. She’s the daughter-in-law of one of the co-founders of Amway, the multilevel marketing behemoth, with a family fortune estimated at $5 billion. DeVos was also previously the chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, and her husband, Dick DeVos, ran unsuccessfully for the state’s governorship in 2006.

Initially, Tuesday’s confirmation hearing was set for last week, but Democrats pushed for the delay so DeVos could finish the ethics disclosure process.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray is the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which means she’s in charge of the grilling DeVos will receive from the opposition. Though she hasn’t yet signaled which way the questioning will go, Murray said she’d met with DeVos a couple weeks back, and the Democrats promised early on to specifically target the Michigan Republican leader, in addition to seven other nominees.

Here’s what will likely come up at Tuesday’s hearing:

School choice

Although charter schools and school choice aren’t just a Republican hobby horse — President Obama’s previous Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is a big fan of them, for example — DeVos comes from the most right-wing faction of the movement. She strongly supports charter schools run by for-profit entities, less regulation of how charters operate, and more financial backing for vouchers to send students to private or religious schools.

Other charter school advocates from more liberal-leaning parts of the movement have reservations with DeVos’ agenda and Trump, in general, which could reflect how some Democrats, even those friendly to school choice, question her.

Detroit and Michigan schools

The most tangible and controversial example of DeVos’ support for school choice is her involvement in remaking Michigan’s education system. Her family started the Great Lakes Education Project, an aggressive lobbying organization on behalf of Michigan charter schools, and DeVos currently sits on the board. Since the early aughts, they’ve donated millions to the group as well as politicians trying to limit charter oversight, as the Detroit Free Press’ Stephen Henderson noted.

Detroit Public Schools, a district heavily reliant on school choice, is an oft-cited example of the movement’s failure. Enrollment has steadily declined over the last couple of decades, yet debt continues to increase. Charter schools in the state as whole have also failed to keep pace with those in other states and even score worse on certain national benchmarks than traditional schools.

Donations and conflicts of interest

With more than $5 million in political donations made over the last five years, DeVos has supported a variety of Republican candidates who back her preferred reforms to direct more public dollars to private schools, religious schools, and unregulated charter schools. Donations from DeVos’s family include more than $250,000 in donations to Senators on the HELP committee, such as chairman Lamar Alexander, the Washington Post reported. And the Center for American Progress recently found that the DeVos family has given over $950,000 to 21 senators who will have the chance to vote on her nomination.

election 2016
Donald Trump
charter schools
school choice
Betsy DeVos
confirmation hearing
secretary of education
Patty Murray
education policy